Ottawa Paul Martin's Liberals have rejected opposition demands that they call an election in the first week of January, a move that suggests the country is about to be plunged into a Christmas campaign.
After an afternoon of protracted bargaining, the three opposition party leaders announced that the Prime Minister must call a vote in January for a February election or they will trigger an election themselves next week. It's a manoeuvre that places the potentially unpopular decision to hold a campaign over the holidays and the loss of some popular legislation on Mr. Martin's shoulders.
"We all agree that we will support a New Democratic Party motion that will ask the government to call an election the first week of January, 2006," Conservative Leader Stephen Harper told a dinner-hour news conference yesterday.
That motion will be presented tomorrow, provided the Liberals permit it to be introduced on a scheduled Conservative opposition day. If the Liberals don't agree, the motion could be delayed until a Bloc Québécois opposition day on Thursday.
"If the government refuses to debate the motion, or refuses to accept it if it's adopted, with the support of the New Democratic Party we will present a motion on non-confidence the following week," Mr. Harper said.
That no-confidence motion is likely to come on Nov. 22 or 24, which would normally lead to an election in the first or second week of January.
Mr. Martin has said he will call an election within 30 days of the release of the final Gomery report into the sponsorship scandal that is expected Feb. 1. He rejected a request from NDP Leader Jack Layton last week that he voluntarily move that ahead to January.
Liberal House Leader Tony Valeri said that there is no need to advance the election date promised by Mr. Martin ahead by a month.
"For the sake of eight weeks, families will be interrupted by candidates campaigning on their doorstep through the Christmas season," Mr. Valeri said last night.
"For the sake of eight weeks, the least wealthy amongst us will not receive an energy rebate cheque worth as much as $250 because of the opposition's actions. For the sake of eight weeks, our soldiers will not receive a scheduled pay raise because of opposition actions. Our seniors will not receive an increase in their pensions. Our cities will not receive a boost in their funding for transit and better roads, because of the opposition's actions."
"For the sake of eight weeks, our farmers will not benefit from increased assistance that was due to flow," Mr. Valeri said.
Mr. Harper said the government would have the opportunity to work on all of those things if it commits in writing to hold the election earlier. to hold the January election.
"If the government wants these things done, if it wants to avoid a Christmas election, this will give it an opportunity," Mr. Harper said. "If the government just wants to have an election now and isn't at all concerned about that then it will reject this proposal."
The Bloc Québécois is currently filibustering a point of privilege entered by Liberal MP Denis Coderre and could continue disrupting the House of Commons. But the Bloc will agree to end the disruption if the Liberals will ensure again in writing that the four opposition days scheduled for this week and next are not moved. to the end of the month.
The Liberals could respond to the opposition demands by proroguing the House of Commons but they would then have to explain that decision to Canadians in light of the assertion that they are working on a full agenda of important legislation.
If the Liberals were to prorogue or delay the opposition days, "it says they are terrified of an election," Mr. Harper said.
The Liberal minority has been able to hold onto power with the support of the NDP, despite the Conservative contention that the findings of inquiry into the sponsorship scandal took away its moral authority to govern. Mr. Layton withdrew that support last week when the Liberals refused to take steps that met his satisfaction to stem the expansion of private health care.
"New Democrats are here to get things done for people. We've shown it. We mean it," Mr. Layton said yesterday.
"And I'm encouraged that the first step that the opposition will take is to put forward a common-sense compromise." One that allows Parliament to be productive this fall, avoid the holiday election, allows the first ministers meeting on aboriginal issues to occur."
The opposition wants the election sooner rather than later because they do not want to give the Liberals an extra month of unofficial campaigning using government jets and handing out voter incentives. The opposition parties interpret the economic statement that is being released today as a form of electioneering.
They also had anticipated with some relish the opportunity of holding a campaign at the same time the second report of Mr. Justice John Gomery into the sponsorship-program spending was being released.
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe noted that, on the weekend, Liberal ministers such as Jean Lapierre and Pierre Pettigrew had dared the opposition to defeat them if they want an election, and dismissed their push for a January election.
"Mr. Lapierre said 'Put up or shut up?' Well that's where we're at," Mr. Duceeppe said. "The ball is in their court."
With a report from Timothy Appleby